Recently, I had a comment removed from a major DUNGEONS & DRAGONS Facebook group. The comment was in respect of avoiding the appearance of racism by using non-human monsters as an adventure’s antagonists, rather than an evil human culture. The feedback I received from the admin was as follows:
There’s a lot of documentation out in the public sphere as to why orcs might not be the best solution and as a professional DM & public figure you are most likely familiar with it.
This wasn’t the end of it, though. The admin was so riled by my answer that, a few days later, the thread was locked and they muted my ability to post, claiming that the group was a place for DM advice and not ‘political discourse’. Furthermore, they cautioned that I should take the mute as my one and only warning.
Yep, that’s right: by encouraging a DM to use a non-human enemy to avoid the appearance of racism, I gave this admin a conniption fit so intense they threatened to ban me.
Whoever you were, I’d like to thank you for finally making me so fed up with this issue that I decided to write this op-ed on the matter.
I don’t believe D&D orcs are a product of racism or an allegory for BIPOC individuals. They never have been in the entire history of D&D’s official adventures and supplements. I’m sure there are some scattered deplorables out there who, in the context of their own worlds, have twisted orcs—and any evil humanoid—into some wretched caricature of an ethnic groups against which they are prejudiced, but those people don’t work at Wizards of the Coast and that is not the position of the official game materials. This article is not an endorsement of people who do this, only a rejection that it’s a part of the game’s official rules.
This isn’t to say that Wizards of the Coast is perfect. Everyone knows that they’ve had their fair share of missteps when it comes to portraying human cultures. Just in Fifth Edition, the Vistani (Curse of Strahd) and the Chultans (Tomb of Annihilation) are obvious examples of very problematic caricatures of real-world cultures that should have been caught in sensitivity reading. Fortunately, the game designers listened to players who brought this up and took steps to remediate the problem, making adjustments to those adventures. This article is not about those missteps, it’s about orcs not being one of them.
It’s my hope that this article will dismantle the misguided and misinformed opinions that abound on the matter and make people realize that by pandering this ridiculous narrative they are actually doing more harm than good.
Before we start, we need to be clear about some of the terms that are used in the books and which are repeated in this article.
D&D’s useage of this term differs from its real-world meaning, and we need to settle the semantics.
In the real world, the word ‘race’ refers to the outmoded and flawed concept that people who share certain skin-deep similarities can be grouped into different cohorts with different inherent natures. Those who believe this nonsense generally, but not always, hold some kind of pseudo-scientific belief in the superiority of certain groups. Such ‘scientific racism’, long in vogue even among intellectuals and scientists beginning with the spread of eugenics theory in the 19th century, was thoroughly debunked around the time of World War II. This is not the meaning of the word ‘race’ in the context of this article, nor in D&D.
In D&D, ‘race’ means ‘species’, and has since the game was first released. Dwarves, elves, and the other fantasy races are as different to humans in D&D as chimpanzees and elephants are to humans in the real world. And just like many simians may learn to imitate human behaviour, they aren’t human and never will be. It isn’t racist to say that there are physical differences between gorillas and humans because we have completely different biologies. Likewise, it isn’t racist for fantasy races to be different—to have different physical and mental capacities, to have different metaphysical abilities, and to even have a completely different moral compass.
One of the most celebrated aspects about D&D is that anyone and everyone can make their own world with its own rules. One person’s fantasy world may consist of floating, continent-sized earthmotes suspended in an aetheric sea. Another person’s might very closely mirror medieval Europe—albeit with the addition of such things as dwarves and magic. No two people will make the same world, and someone picking up an existing world will inevitably have some things about it they’ll want to change.
With infinite iterations on infinite possibilities, it’s important that we narrow the discussion. This article isn’t concerned with the homebrewed settings where toxic people can create racist caricatures; rather, we’re talking now solely about the game’s primary settings—Greyhawk, Mystara, and the Forgotten Realms—which are hereafter referred to as ‘canon’. Again, you can have your own canon, but these settings are the basis for the books and so in discussing the books we have to limit the discussion to the proper context.
A History of Orcs
A discussion of orcs must needs begin with an examination of what they are. The following is a summary of the canon history of orcs, which has formed the basis for how orcs have been treated in official adventures and game supplements over the past 40+ years.
Orcs in the Monster Manual (1978)
Ever since the very first edition of the game, orcs have been monsters, not people. Unlike elves and dwarves, who were created by good deities who value love and freedom and who gave their creations the capacity to embrace those things, orcs were created by the evil deity Gruumsh to be brutal, bloodthirsty footsoldiers in his war against the other gods. This legacy is directly mentioned in the half-orc racial entry in the Player’s Handbook, which states, “The one-eyed god Gruumsh created the orcs, and even those orcs who turn away from his worship can’t fully escape his influence”. What is his vision for the orcs? Well, as shared in the orc entry in the Monster Manual, it is that they would “take and destroy all that the other races would deny them”.
Possessed of limited intellect and supernaturally imbued with a powerful urge for violence and cruelty, orcs don’t exist to create, they exist to destroy. Aside from some isolated individuals able to buck their dark nature through various unreliable means, orcs are irredeemable, inveterate foes of any good-aligned party, no different than a demon or vampire. Gygax and the other designers of the game deliberately crafted orcs this way so that players could face groups of enemies without the issue of racism arising, as would be the case if groups of innately evil humans were an adventure’s antagonists.
Orcs in Fifth Edition D&D—still not human, and never will be
It’s this aspect of orcs that most people who object to the supposed immorality of evil orcs are either forgetting or wilfully ignoring. Again, it’s fine if these folks decide in their world that orcs have a different history and opt to make sweeping changes to their nature following such alternative origins, but to hold canon orcs to the standards that arise from their own world and its rules is an untenable position.
To put this in perspective, it would be like someone accusing you of being racist for using evil, undead vampires because they re-wrote vampires to be a misunderstood and downtrodden branch of humanity. It’s nonsense. Their concepts are not binding on your world, and you aren’t racist for not abiding by them.
But… But Tolkien…
Invariably, any discussion I have with someone on this matter will, at this exact point, somehow come to orcs from Lord of the Rings and how they’re supposedly a racist contrivance. For whatever reason, people think that by claiming (erroneously, by the way) that the inspiration for D&D’s orcs was a product of bigotry, they can prove that anything born of that inspiration must also be racist. The author NK Jemisin phrased this as, “fruit of the poisoned vine”.
As a Tolkien scholar, this entire rhetoric particularly irks me. I earned the letters after my name in part through careful study and exegesis of Tolkien’s writings, which have always represented for me the greatest fiction ever written—not only because of Tolkien’s masterful use of symbolism and the richness of his characters, but also because he tells a quintessentially human story of love prevailing over hatred. To see people besmirch Tolkien’s legacy fills me with incredulity and sorrow. So, even though I strongly feel that this whole discussion really has nothing to do with D&D, I’ll take a moment to set the record straight here so that people stop trying to throw shade on Tolkien’s good name in a backhanded attempt to prove that D&D is racist. Obviously, this will not be the most comprehensive discussion on the matter; anyone interested in reading more on this subject such check out Dr. Dimitra Fimi’s exceptionally thorough deep dive into the matter.
The fact of the matter is that Tolkien wasn’t racist. Having witnessed the horrors of South African apartheid in his youth, Tolkien (pronounced tol-keen, by the way) was a life-long humanist who rejected and resented race-based theory. In his valedictory address to Oxford in 1959, he said, “I have the hatred of apartheid in my bones”, and in his Letter 45 he professed “burning” enmity for “that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler” for his unacceptable racism. Tolkien would be turning over in his grave to see some of the hateful vitriol people spew about him without ever having read a single word of his books, and if you have pandered such nonsense, shame on you.
Tolkien was so vehemently anti-racist that he actively strived to dismantle such concepts in his readers. To discourage comparisons between his fictional groups and real-world cultures, he adamantly disavowed any and all allegory in the book’s foreword and even deliberately signals to the reader that those humans who followed Sauron were likely just misguided, not evil:
“It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would rather have stayed there in peace.”
In addition to this, the determining factor of one’s worth in Middle-earth never once boiled down to lineage, but rather to personal choices. Throughought the legendarium (the full range of published and unpublished works that tell the history of Middle-earth), one can find stories of just as many craven dwarves, elves, and humans as there are brave ones. Sometimes, these individuals are inspired to goodness or evil by a forebear, but by and large they find their courage or maliciousness within their own hearts. Many of the heroes in Lord of the Rings are not even mighty warriors, but small hobbits who represent ordinary people doing their best to help defeat evil.
Merry and Pippin, two of the most important heroes in the story (art by Ted Nasmith)
The only irredeemably evil beings in Middle-earth were the orcs. These creatures were once elves before, in a bygone age, the Dark Lord Morgoth (a semi-divine being whom Sauron served in the First Age) abducted them and twisted their minds and bodies using foul magic, erasing all goodness within them so that they could become unquestioning servants and soldiers. In fact, orcs in Middle-earth are so deeply bound to the will of a Dark Lord that, without it, their organization dissolves and their morale breaks. This wasn’t as disastrous for them after Morgoth was defeated because Sauron took over the Dark Lord’s mantle. Likewise, after Sauron’s first defeat, much of his power was still in the One Ring, driving orcs to continue fighting the Free Peoples for the next 3,000 years. It was only when the Ring was finally unmade and Sauron’s power utterly broken at the end of Lord of the Rings that the orcs were utterly scattered:
[T]he creatures of Sauron, orc or troll or beast spell-enslaved, ran hither and thither mindless; and some slew themselves, or cast themselves in pits, or fled wailing back to hide in holes and dark lightless places far from hope.
Any modern reader who actually reads Lord of the Rings can clearly see that Tolkien’s orcs are not an expression of the author’s hatred of non-European cultures; they are essentially living zombies given purpose and direction through divine will. So yes, there is a conceptual connection between them and D&D’s orcs, but it isn’t any kind of shared allegory. Tolkien’s orcs were never meant to be anything other than orcs, no matter how much someone tries to impose some twisted narrative on them, and D&D’s orcs inherited no racism from them.
One especially complex facet of this issue is how the entire discussion is based on Eurocentric biases. This is especially evident when people use the example of the adjective ‘savage’ in the descriptions of orcs, which they argue is somehow a specific slur against Black and Indigenous American cultures and therefore an indication that orcs are meant as a caricature of those groups.
This is, of course, a fundamentally flawed line of reasoning that reveals the limited worldview of the claimant. Not only is ‘savage’ (from the Old French sauvage, c. 1300) etymologically unrelated to any cultural group, its usage as an antonym for words such as ‘civilized’ and ‘compassionate’ mimics its effective translations in languages around the world, some of which have even been used as descriptors for people of European descent (chicken nanban is a Chinese dish that imitates European cuisine; the name literally means ‘barbarian chicken’). Yes, racist settlers and slavekeepers in Europe and North America used words like this to describe BIPOC folks, but such bigotry has never been the exclusive provision or privilege of Europeans.
Fundamentally, the argument that these stereotypes ‘belong to’ certain ethnic groups only serves to tacitly endorse their validity. Every single culture across human history has insulted the civilization of their enemies; they are universal tropes that are equally wrong across all applications. In D&D, they find use being lumped into monstrous races—orcs, goblins, lizardfolk, etc.—so that they can be the antagonists in whatever conflict frames an adventure’s background without needing some kind of narrative reason for being the villains. Unlike humans, they don’t need a reason to raid and pillage—it isn’t some cultural quirk, it’s what they were created to do. Because orcs and the like aren’t real, they can be these innately evil monsters that do not exist in our world.
Again, you can choose to change this in your campaign. You can give orcs human motivations, histories, and cultural traditions that other races simply don’t understand, leading to conflict. But that’s not what orcs have in the official D&D rules, and if you give them those traits then you are responsible for addressing the social implications of a free-thinking, evil race. You can’t hold Wizards of the Coast accountable for not providing something made necessary by your own choices.
History Repeating Itself
This isn’t the first time D&D has been accused of being racist. The first accusations actually go back decades to the ’80s, when conservative Christian parents in the grip of the Satanic Panic sought to contrive reasons why they should throw out their childrens’ game materials and replace them with the Bible. These superstitious lunatics promulgated so much ignorant nonsense, including that D&D promoted violence against minorities, that 60 Minutes produced a documentary segment about the claims, and academic journals began publishing papers on the phenomenon.
DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS: A wholesome hobby—or *spins wheel* literally just racism?
As modern audiences might expect, many of these papers demonstrated that D&D actually improved moral development, rather than encouraged dysfunctional behaviour. In other words, whilst conservative aspects of society were striking down the Equal Rights Amendment Act, launching a war on drugs, and fighting to end affirmative action, progressive researchers were compiling empirical evidence that D&D was producing teenagers with healthy morality.
So what’s changed since the ’80s? Only the political leaning of the people casting these aspersions. Instead of conservative pearl-clutchers trying to prove their superior morality by denouncing a popular pasttime, it’s so-called ‘progressives’ who are just as right-wing in their antics. The tools are the exact same: they drop scare-terms (‘micro-aggressions’ and ‘Satanic’); they contrive wildly racist interpretations which they then project onto the players; and they accuse those who disagree with them of being sympathetic to the nonsensical, imagined agenda through such methods as gaslighting and kafkatrapping. “If you don’t agree with me, you’re racist” is a line that should be said by someone who espouses equal access to human rights, not someone who is blatantly misinterpreting a fictional race as a harmful stereotype.
And this brings me to my final point.
The Whole Thing Is Backfiring
The most maddening—and sadly predictable—aspect of this entire debate is that people are actually reinforcing very harmful narratives in their attempts to be more inclusive.
The fact of the matter is that nobody thought orcs were supposed to represent certain cultures until someone drew the most superficial of connections and began shouting about it, drawing a bunch of closet racists/would-be do-gooders to join the chorus until it became this terrible scourge of the community. Nobody wants to be accused of being racist, so the narrative isn’t being challenged anymore and orcs are becoming the very thing they were included in the game to prevent: a metaphor for certain ethnic groups that are cast in the role of the villain. And with an increasing number of publications like Medium and Comicbook chasing clicks by writing puff pieces about this deeply troubling narrative, the concept is becoming more and more deeply entrenched in the mind of the community.
Extra Credit (YouTube) helping exactly nobody
Imagine that you just joined a gaming community and you’re immediately told, “Hey, you’re obviously one of these evil, uncivilized monsters”. No matter how much those monsters are then ‘toned down’ to not offend you as much, the fact remains that it is a horribly offensive caricature invented by those players who don’t see you as human. Chances are, you’re not going to feel welcome in the community after this, and you’ll write off the entire hobby as being full of racists because of a few prejudiced individuals.
What To Do?
The solution to this problem is not to normalize the narrative, but denounce it. Stop making orcs more palatable versions of a fundamentally racist caricature and accept that orcs were never and will never be D&D’s version of these cultures. Orcs are monsters, not people, and no amount of artistic licence will fix the problems that arise when they’re treated otherwise. This kind of narrative simply doesn’t belong in the D&D community—at least, not as the inclusive and accepting space I’ve known it to be for the past 20 years.
Other things you can do depend on who you are.
Are You A Black, Indigenous, or Person of Colour (BIPOC) Individual?
- Be vocal about how upset it makes you that certain people automatically associate you and your community/culture with orcs. Ask that they kindly stop sharing this harmful perspective.
- Feel free to continue to play whatever race you choose, since they’re all fictional groups of creatures that you and the DM can make whatever you want.
Are You A Non-BIPOC D&D Player?
- Please refrain from acting like orcs are supposed to represent BIPOC individuals and ask your friends to do the same. (This means not trying to make more palatable caricatures of BIPOC people as orcs; reject the entire premise instead.)
- Don’t make orc characters that are meant as racist caricatures of certain groups. (You probably weren’t doing this already, I know, but the request still stands.)
- Don’t play in games where the DM uses monsters as racist caricatures of certain groups. (I’ve not personally encountered this either, but I’m sure it’s happened somewhere.)
- If you’re a DM, read this excellent article by James Haeck about why orcs are a fantastic enemy to include in your campaign. (Also, be willing to work with BIPOC players if they would like to incorporate human groups into your campaign that better reflect non-European tropes.)
Are You Jeremy Crawford?
I appreciate you making it this far.
- Continue to defend the hobby as an inclusive space where racism isn’t tolerated. Make it clear that this entire discussion is harmful to the community and denounce those racist people who are projecting their bigoted perspectives onto everyone else.
- Clarify the difference between D&D’s concept of race and the defunct anthropological concept of race so as to ensure everyone is aware that the term is used in the context of D&D’s 40-year legacy and not as tacit endorsement of pseudo-scientific fallacies.
- Try to incorporate more BIPOC stories into D&D’s human mythology to reinforce the connection between the D&D race and all real-world human cultures. There are many talented BIPOC creators you could hire to bring their cultural perspectives to the worldbuilding and storymaking process.
- Re-implement the link between alignment and race and go back to including ability score increases under racial traits, reflecting that different species possess different biologies and de-normalizing the stigma that has come to surround such matters through equal parts honest confusion and deliberate misinterpretation by members of the community.
Returning back to the comment from the Facebook group admin, yes, I am aware of the ‘documentation’ in the public sphere about orcs—and I reject it. It’s nothing but problematic nonsense that does far more harm than good. The entire argument is based on a flawed narrative that needs to be denounced, not encouraged.
I refuse to be lectured to about racism by someone who is projecting their own blatant racism on the rest of the world. I exhort you to stop being so racist as to think that human ethnicities and cultures resemble monsters and stop forcing this problematic opinion on others. You are causing deep harm to the community; it’s your comments that should be banned, not mine. Shame on you.
Taylor Reisdorf is an LGBT+ game designer and dungeon master who has played D&D for 20 years. He is a fourth-generation settler living on Treaty 1 territory in Canada, the ancestral and traditional homeland of the Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, and Dene peoples. He supports Black Lives Matter, denounces Gamergate, and runs a diverse gaming table open to all people irrespective of creed, ethnic origin, sex, or orientation.